Electric Ireland Camogie Third Level Championships finals weekend operates.Saoirse McCarthy caused some eyes to pop recently when she informed her younger teammates about how the
"I'm one of three who've been to a weekend before," McCarthy, who has captained MTU Cork in this year's Electric Ireland Purcell Cup, tells Balls.
"You forget that the other girls don't know what it entails, and what happens. I had to explain that the semi-final is on the Saturday and the final on the Sunday, and all that to a few second and third years.
"It was mad, bizarre to me that they didn't know about it. It does make it more exciting that it's the first time for a lot of the girls."
MTU Cork sealed their semi-final spot by going through the group stages unbeaten. They defeated the University of Galway by five, hammered the DCU second team, and beat the University of Limerick second team by six. Given their form, promotion to the Electic Ireland Ashbourne Cup is certainly in their sights.
The panel is mostly made up of those from the Rebel county with a sprinkling of Kilkenny and Limerick thrown in. McCarthy, an All-Ireland senior winner with Cork in 2018, has also played in the last two All-Ireland finals. She enjoys the relaxed vibe of college camogie compared to the inter-county game.
"My first year when I was 19, I hadn't played a lot of matches with Cork because it was one of my first years on the squad. I hadn't got a lot of game time, and had a rocky championship," she explains.
"Coming into college camogie, it really boosts your confidence. It highlights the fact you're there to have a bit of fun and enjoy playing. I love that side of it. There's no pressure, and you can just go out and enjoy playing. That's the biggest thing I've learnt from college camogie: You have to enjoy what you're doing to be good at it.
"We're all similar in age. There's not this big age gap. We're all between 19 - 22. I would spend more time with the friends I've made through CIT camogie than I would with people from my course. Definitely, it's a great way to make friends, and a great way to mix between years.
"I would have close friends who are in first, second, third year. That wouldn't have happened unless you play camogie together. You only stick to your own course, your own year, when you're just mingling in college.
"When I was in first year, I was friends with fourth years. They know the tricks and ins and outs of college life. It's a great way to learn from them. If there's someone in the same course as you that's already done it, they are always going to be a helping hand too. That side of it really helped."
Saoirse McCarthy with a magnificent point from distance for Cork.
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The past two years have seen McCarthy move out of her camogie comfort zone. Former Cork manager Paudie Murray converted her from a forward to a wing-back in 2021. She's started the last two All-Ireland finals - defeats to Galway and Kilkenny - in that position. For MTU Cork, she shows further versatility by lining out at centre-back.
"I was a bit reluctant at the start," says the Courcey Rovers player about changing position.
"When it was first said, I was a bit like, 'Best of luck with that, people have tried that before, and it didn't work'. It was my first year with the Cork minors. I complained my way out of it! I was like, 'Oh, I can't!' I got out of it, and ended up in midfield - we met in the middle.
"At the same time, I wanted to be playing. I wasn't a guaranteed starter playing as a forward. I just saw an opportunity playing as a back. I had to just take it.
"I enjoy it. In 2022, I was able to get forward an awful lot, and get shots away - not a lot of them went over!
"I watch matches now, and clap for a block or hook more than for a good point. I'm definitely after changing my mindset on that one.
"You have to trust management, and always think they're doing the best thing for the team. So if I'm told to go out and do something, I'm going to do it to the best of my ability. That's the main takeaway: Do what you're told. If you don't completely agree with it, it's not up to you - you don't pick the team."
McCarthy was nominated for an All-Star in 2021, and won one last year, obvious signs of how well she has taken to the positional switch.
"I couldn't tackle anyone before! Genuinely!" she says.
"I used just let people run by me and catch them after. Just standing someone up, these are skills which might be overlooked, especially in camogie when you're underage. You're relearning those fundamental skills of defending.
"It's a mindset thing. You always have to be tuned in as a back, you have to be looking for the ball, your player, if there's space somewhere. Whereas as a forward, I zoned out, and would bring myself in and out of the game. As a back, you have to be mentally tuned in all the time. That was probably a struggle!"
She puts her progression as a tackler partially down to working with Davy Fitzgerald last year. The two-time All-Ireland winner was part of Matthew Twomey's backroom team in 2022.
"He's so enthusiastic," says McCarthy.
"You're never going to meet someone who's going to drive you on [like him].
"He has such a way with people, he'll make you believe you can do something even when you've never done it before. I can't say a bad word.
"He wanted to work an awful lot on our skill level. There's no one on the team that can deny our tackling, our handpassing, our shooting, our touch [didn't improve]. Our fundamental skills got so much better last year because he worked on them so much with us in training. My tackling, like I said, was brutal before last year. I feel like it's one of the strongest parts of my game now."
McCarthy describes last year's one-point All-Ireland final defeat to Kilkenny as "heartbreaking".
"If you'd asked anyone on the panel in 2021, they would have gone back training the next day [after losing to Galway]," she says.
"That was the mentality: 'We're here now, and we've got the monkey off our back of winning the semi-final. We just want to go out and give it another go'. This year, I felt like we had it and let go of it. We all felt - not hard-done-by - but personally, I felt like I couldn't have done anymore leading up to that match.
"You are trying your absolute best, and you still don't win, and you're like, 'What more can I actually do?' It's very hard mentally to pick yourself back up, and go back training. We're back now, and it's fine, we're flying it.
"It's just a matter of getting your head around having to do it all again. That's the hardest bit when you've lost a big match like that by such a small margin."
Winning an All-Star last year was a "a dream come through" for McCarthy. Though, it was also a time filled with sadness as her grandmother died a week before the awards night.
"It was a bit upsetting knowing that she'd never see me with my All-Star," she says.
"The night of it, it was all happy, and the week after it was anti-climactic. The one person I wanted to tell the most wasn't there. Everyone just left it. It wasn't really celebrated. In time, you might be able to appreciate it a bit more.
"It was a great lift for my family in such a hard time. I will always accept that. For something I'd dreamt of for so long, it wasn't the biggest deal in the world. I think if we'd won the All-Ireland, it might have put a shine on it. We'll put it in the cupboard, and see what happens this year."